Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview Part II

Don Brewer Interview Part II

Pics of Don Brewer credited to Ken Riccio

By 1973, Grand Funk Railroad had experienced success as a trio, having famously sold-out Shea Stadium faster than The Beatles on the backside of 1970’s Closer to Home. Sadly, shoddy management dealings with longtime cohort, Terry Knight, had left Mark Farner, Mel Schacter, and Don Brewer not only down and out, but broke and fighting litigation. Ouch. Making matters worse, 1971’s Survival and E Pluribus Funk and 1972’s Pheonix were failures as far as hit singles went, as FM radio had shifted to a three-minute format—even on the hard rock side.

And so, the decision was made to pull back some of the songwriting duties from Mark Farner and for Don Brewer to get involved. The result was 1973’s We’re an American Band, aka the album that would shoot to number one and define Grand Funk.

At the time, the members of Grand Funk were said to be on the same page, but not long after, things went wrong, and Mark Farner was gone. In retrospect, Brewer has no regrets, as the song has kept Grand Funk strong. “That song has an energy of its own,” Brewer says. “It came down to radio, which paid attention to it.”

“And when we play it live now,” he says. “It still gets everyone on their feet. Everybody knows the song. Everybody has great memories of that song. It’s got a life of its own. I’m very fortunate to have been a part of it.”

Looking back on We’re an American Band, Grand Funk Railroad’s Don Brewer dialed in with ClassicRockHistory.com to dig into its origins, recording, impact, and legacy.

Going into the sessions for We’re an American Band, what was the state of Grand Funk Railroad?

We were miserable. We were being sued by our former manager, Terry Knight, and we’d come out with an album called Pheonix that we’d produced ourselves without Terry, which was great, but we agreed we needed to do more.

What was it that you felt you needed?

We knew radio had changed from FM underground to a hit-oriented format between 1970 and ’72. Everything changed where you needed to make three-minute songs because of the people who had taken over the radio stations. We knew we needed to come up with a record that could carry us through cities every night on tour.

So, what was the plan that you came up with?

Terry had taken all the money we made in the first few years of our career, so we were broke. But we needed to make this huge transition, so I started contributing to songwriting [Mark Farner had done most of the writing before].

As we were flying through these towns, being sued, I began to take down little snippets of things I had in my mind and write about them. I put all these stories together and put chord changes on my Martin acoustic guitar, coming up with choruses, verses, and bridges, the things I thought hit songs needed to work. And then, one day, while practicing, I came up with the tagline, “We’re an American band.”

And how did Mark Farner take that, seeing as he was the primary songwriter to that point?

At that point, yes, he was okay with it. We were all brothers in arms because we had a common goal. We had to come through; it was sink or swim time. We had to get through it. Plus, we had a mutual enemy in Terry Knight. It was sorta like, ‘Hey, anybody have any great ideas? If so, bring them on.” That was what the band was about at that point.

You mentioned how you came up with the idea for “We’re an American Band.” Did you foresee it being a jumping-off point for the rest of the record?

No, I didn’t at that point. I remember that while we were in the studio, the people from Capitol Records were chomping at the bit, though. They wanted to hear some good stuff, have a finished product, and start being able to sell it. I remember they flew down to hear what we were doing, and we were working on “We’re an American Band,” once they heard it, they were jumping around, screaming, and yelling, “Oh my God; that’s great!”

But you didn’t see it that way?

It was just another song to me. I was like, “You guys really like that?” I had no idea, but they said, “God, that’s a hit!” They wanted to release it right away, so we put that song out while we were still in Criteria Studios finishing the record. That song came out in June of ’73, and the album came out a month later in July. And by the time the album came out, we had a hit on our hands.

July is certainly an appropriate time for a song like that.

Yeah! And it marched right up to number one. I really didn’t realize that it was going to do that. I first realized we had a smash song when I was driving from Mel Schacher’s house, and “We’re an American Band” came on my car radio. I pulled over to the side of the road, listened, and just couldn’t believe how great it sounded. It sounded like a hit record, and man, it was a hit record.

We’re An American Band, the album, featured a lot of new sonic elements not present in Grand Funk previously. Was that producer Todd Rundgren’s doing?

Yeah, it was Todd who brought a lot of that. We looked for Todd to produce us as we knew we needed to make changes. We made a bunch of records with Terry Knight, who was not a great producer. He was never able to capture what we were doing as a trio, so to transition to the hit FM radio format, we needed to enlist Todd, as he knew what he was doing. We really loved Todd’s stuff, and he loved the idea of producing us, so we hit it off right away.

Can you remember recording the drums and vocals for “We’re an American Band?”

I remember listening back, and it sounded awesome. Everything we’d done with Terry Knight sounded flat and dry, with no EQ. I’d listen to that stuff through headphones, and it wasn’t inspiring, but the stuff with Todd was different. It sounded exactly like we wanted it, and I remember feeling so free while playing in the studio. I was able to really play drums how I wanted, and they sounded great.

You mentioned your reaction to the success, but how did Mel and Mark react?

At that time, everybody was on the same page. We said, “We’ve got to have hit records. We’ve got to smoke Terry Knight.” So, that’s what we did. That’s what it was all about for all of us then. No one said, ‘Oh my God, Don is singing or writing too many songs.” There was none of that going on.

How did the public perception of Grand Funk shift after “We’re an American Band” went to number one?

It was great. It was like our second wind, as we’d had a nice high when we sold out Shea Stadium a few years prior after Closer to Home. Remember: Grand Funk sold out Shea Stadium faster than The Beatles.

We’d made good albums, but they weren’t as great as We’re an American Band. Plus, with the whole fiasco with Terry Knight, that put us down, had us broke, and down and out. Going to number one kinda let us open shop again, you know? It was like, “Oh, my God, this is exactly what we needed.”

Audiences must have reacted strongly once you took those new songs on the road.

They did. But I thought we were always true to our school when we played live. It was all about the band; it was all about making the audience get up on their feet and have a good time. It was high-energy rock ‘n’ roll, and adding hit records to the show we were already putting on was like icing on the cake. It was like putting a nice cherry on top.

Was it challenging for you to sing more as a drummer during shows?

No, because I was always a singer and a drummer. I never had to think about that much. I was always a singing drummer, even if I was always the lead singer in Grand Funk. But even then, I was always singing backup, so when I had to sing lead, it was second nature. And as time went on, that became a huge part of who I am. I never had a problem with it, and I really enjoyed it.

Ultimately, while you mentioned you were on the same page, “We’re an American Band” represents a powershift from Mark to you. How do you look back on that, and how did it lead to Mark eventually leaving Grand Funk?

Honestly, I don’t have a perspective on that. I was jutting a continuation of Grand Funk as far as I was concerned. And that’s still happening. Grand Funk is still an entity, and it must go on. At the time, we had to make that change, and at the time, everybody was on board with it.

We were successful, so I don’t look back and go, “God, I wish we had stayed how we were.” When the whole Terry Knight deal happened, and FM radio switched, we had to do what we did, or we never woulda made it. We’re still selling out places today because of what we did, so I have no issue with it. It is what it is.

Looking back, what does We’re an American Band mean to you personally?

It means a lot. It wasn’t just that I wrote the song and wasn’t trying to wave a flag. But it became a meaningful song for us and our tagline. The funny thing is there was a story that came about that said the song was about us fighting tHumble Pie and being better than those bands. Those guys in Humble Pie were our buddies, and none of that ever happened. Anyway, the song means a lot to me, and all I can say is that I’m very fortunate to have been a part of it, and I will always be thankful it went to number one. To this day, I think it’s awesome.

 

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